Last straw for university lottery: The selection process for places in higher education is ripe for reform, says Tony Higgins

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The Independent Online
THE PROCESS of applying for a place in higher education is in need of radical reappraisal. The system based on limited choices linked to A-level results is surely obsolete and straining from overload. So the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), the body in charge of handling admissions procedures, has just issued a consultative report on change. Whichever option finds favour there will be far-reaching consequences for the future organisation of school and higher education.

In the early Sixties there were nearly 100,000 applicants, mostly 18- year-olds, for 44,500 places. Now there are 420,000 applicants for 270,000 places, coming from a wider variety of backgrounds and ages and applying to a much more diverse system. Yet the procedures for entry in 1994 are very much the same as those used in the early Sixties.

On top of this general expansion, the Government's withdrawal, in the late Seventies, of longer planning perspectives in favour of annual announcements of student numbers, has meant that universities and colleges are forced to make offers to students before their target numbers are known.

And students seem to make tactical, rather than educational, decisions about what to apply for, especially when they are gambling on conditional offers. Indeed, many say they have to make these important educational choices too early in their lives.

Admissions tutors, vice chancellors, applicants and schools could all be better served. UCAS has therefore begun a full review of applications procedures. In this we have been influenced by the Flowers Committee Report earlier this year into the structure of the academic year in higher education, which proposed two semesters of 15 weeks (instead of three terms of 10 weeks), one beginning in early September and the other in the New Year.

Our report outlines two models for reforming the admissions system. The first is based on systems operating successfully in Ireland, Hong Kong and New South Wales. Universities and colleges would publish detailed criteria against which they would select students, ascribing a points value to each criterion. These might include performance in school/college leaving examinations, performance at interview, the National Record of Achievement, ability to demonstrate core skills, age and so on. Applicants, aware of their own strengths and weaknesses, would apply to those institutions whose entry criteria most match their abilities and potential performance. They would list their applications in an order of preference.

On publication of examination results, the computer sorts through for each course all applicants who have put it down as first choice and matches up those who have met the prescribed minimum points value. If insufficient applicants satisfy the required points total, the computer scans those who hold the course as second choice, third choice and so on until it is full. Alternatively the computer can relax the minimum so that a course fills up on the first round.

This type of system is quick, transparently honest (there are no inside deals made between admissions tutors and applicants or schools) and guarantees that courses meet their targets precisely, provided sufficient qualified applicants are out there.

But none of the countries in which it operates has such a big higher education system as the UK. And it would be hard to imagine it functioning alongside the present British arrangement of subjective assessment, based on confidential references and the exercise of discretion by admissions tutors in respect of individual candidates. To do so would greatly increase the workload on tutors and applicants, simply because of the greater number of courses that must be nominated in such a system. In Ireland and Hong Kong students make 20 choices, here in the UK they make only eight.

In the second model, applications are made after A-level and other results are known. Much of the applications administration would be completed ahead of the school-leaving exams, but individual choices of course would be made when results were known and when students were sure what they wanted to study. Courses would be listed in order of preference and applications sent sequentially to admissions tutors.

All offers would be unconditional and universities and colleges would be able to control their numbers precisely. Admissions tutors would have fewer forms to wade through and applicants would know precisely where they stood. The bear garden of 'clearing' (for students whose initial choices are all rejected), and part of the anguish of waiting for A-level results, would end.

There are, however, serious obstacles to this option. Given the timing of school exams, higher education applications could not be completed in time for an early September semester start, or even early October.

It might be more realistic if the school year were reorganised and school leaving examinations brought forward. The alternative would be to aim to have students enter higher education at the start of January. This would allow examinations to be delayed to July, so that the whole of years 12 and 13 at school could be used for A-level study, rather than four to five terms as at present.

This would increase the already longish period of limbo for students waiting to start higher education, though recent Labour Party proposals for three months' paid voluntary work for the unemployed between 16 and 24 might provide the ideal answer. There would also have to be access to careers services to provide necessary advice for those who had already left school or college.

Higher education course design and assessment are changing substantially. UCAS is therefore suggesting that any new applications system must provide for multi-entry points in the year. It could be that in future we no longer talk of 'the academic year' because all students will have their own academic year depending on their access points and on how they build their courses.

The one start date that is common to any system of semesters or terms is the beginning of January. This might suggest that an applications system with the focal point of entry in January would satisfy both the most conservative and the most revolutionary.

The writer is chief executive of UCAS.

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